Power to the people

Graduate Studies, Human and Social Development

- Kate Hildebrand

Melina Laboucan

Melina Laboucan, a 33-year-old member of the Lubicon Cree First Nation, came to UVic’s Indigenous Governance (IGov) master’s program in 2013 with a clear purpose: to develop a solar energy project plan that would tackle Indigenous and environmental issues in her home town of Little Buffalo, Alberta.

“They hadn’t seen my kind of project before,” she says of her professors, Drs. Jeff Corntassel and Taiaiake Alfred. But they were open to her plan and highly supportive in helping her see it through.

“Melina’s work embodies the leadership and governance practices that our program promotes,” says Corntassel, IGov director. “As I see it, this is a grassroots project where Indigenous governance, sustainability and resurgence converge—and it's being done on the community's terms without government money.”

Laboucan says of her IGov profs, “These are men who support modern-day change that embraces the very nature of our Indigenous communities. The program was a great experience. Really exciting. And I am really pleased by how they enabled me.”

She knew what she wanted to do, but admits she didn’t know how. With access to the space and framework she needed to push her project forward, Laboucan created a plan to realize her vision for the solar project. “IGov asked me, ‘What can we do? What can we bring?’ All I could think about was that my people are in crisis, that was my impetus.”

Having grown up in the shadow of one of the largest oil and gas extraction plants in the world—the Alberta tar sands—Laboucan has shared her eyewitness account of the impact the oil industry has had on her Indigenous community.

“Since 1978, over $14 billion has been taken out of our traditional territory. Yet my family still goes without running water,” Laboucan told the Breaking Ground delegation in 2012, a reporting arm of the Nobel Women’s Initiative. “The more than 2,600 oil wells on Lubicon territory make it difficult to live a healthy, traditional and sustainable lifestyle.”

After years of speaking out, Laboucan wanted to stop fighting and start building something positive. She knew about the IGov program at UVic—a blended program of online learning and on-campus sessions that allowed her to work and stay connected to home and family—and chose it as her incubator. “I wanted to see what solutions actually looked like, to show others that making these changes are possible.”

With her degree complete and her plan in place, Laboucan gained the support of her community to begin the Pitapan solar energy project in the summer of 2015. Their process included community consultation, fundraising, scouting out suitable locations, deciphering complex electrical configuration methods, safety planning, construction and dealing with a range of challenging issues that came up along the way.

Today, Little Buffalo is home to an inspiring 80-panel solar project that generates 20.8 kilowatts of energy. The project powers a health centre with excess flowing into the community’s energy mix. “There are plans for an even larger project to generate more clean energy and revenue for the community,” says Laboucan. “This is just the first phase.”

Jane Fonda, 77, two-time Oscar-winning film actor, TV star, former fitness guru and activist, helped sponsor Laboucan’s project. They met last summer while taking part in a March for Jobs, Justice and the Climate just prior to Toronto hosting the Climate Summit of the Americas.

“The climate change problem is the issue of our civilization,” Fonda told the Toronto Star. “It will affect everything about our lives if we don’t do something about it,” she says. Participants at the event included more than 100 organizations, from Greenpeace to Unifor, a union representing 40,000 oil and gas workers among its 300,000 members.

Meanwhile, the Pitapan solar project is generating more than power. “It’s a beacon of hope and change,” says Laboucan. “The transition to renewable energy frees communities from becoming sacrifice zones for our global addiction to oil. By installing solar panels in Little Buffalo, we have initiated our first steps towards energy sovereignty and have proved that it is possible to be powered by the sun.”

To learn more about PITAPAN, go to lubiconsolar.ca.


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Keywords: indigenous, convocation, alumni, clean energy, community, student life, sustainability, graduate research

People: Melina Laboucan

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